On Civilisation, Crusader Kings and gaming philosophy

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On Civilisation, Crusader Kings and gaming philosophy

Postby My pseudonym is Ix » 26 Jun 2015, 12:05

As has previously been stated, I LOVE Crusader Kings II. I like the strategy, the history, the politics, and just generally enjoy the way Paradox make games. So, to me, the endless barrage of aggravated annoyance that goes back and forth between Cam and his stream/twitter followers regarding the game is both endlessly sad (as is usually the case in any situation where more people are interested in the argument than the actual game) but also a case for insightful thought regarding both CK2 and the game Cam was playing on his last stream, Civilisation V. Which, given how bored and in the mood for intellectual stimulation I'm feeling right now, means I find myself writing this- a tentative analysis and comparison of the ideas behind and expressed in each of these games, and what it is that draws fans to each of them.

To be clear: I am not writing this because I want Cam or anyone else to play either of these games for me. I think that Cam should absolutely get to decide what he wants to stream and that we collectively must learn to accept that, and that anyone else who is interested should take each game as they come to them and according to their own preferences. I'm writing this because I think this kind of thinking is interesting, and because I'm bored and want to get my brain in gear.

Oh, and a final warning- strap in, this is gonna be a rather long one.

So- Civilisation. Arguably the crowned king of strategy games, for its longevity if nothing else, and also for its characteristic combination of scale, simplicity and balance. The game's nearly endless replay value arises from it's utterly tight mechanical design- the game is simple, involving the management of less than ten basic resources (food, production, culture, science, faith, happiness, gold, city-state opinion and military), all of which are visible in simple numerical amounts and have clear mechanical function. These resources then proceed to interlink with one another in such a way as to make them all valuable and to lend the game great tactical and strategic depth from its apparently simplistic makeup. Added to that, the world and factions add to the strategic puzzle the game poses- you must constantly adapt your strategy to suit your location, the available resources, who is around you and, of course, who you are playing as and against. Cam's typical 'ALL THE SCIENCE' game plan works very well with his leader of preference, Nebuchadnezzar, for example, but if he were to attempt victory as Oda Nobunaga he'd be more likely to take the 'CRUSH ALL BENEATH MY FEET' route to success.

This would not, however, be typical of Cam's approach to the game, which leads into the other aspect of Civilisation's appeal- its flavour. Civilisation sells itself as a game designed to celebrate the history, variety and depth of human civilisation over the years, and attempts to reflect that in its mechanical design. The Zulus kick ass early game by crushing all beneath the feet of their Impi, whilst the great mechanised nations of today (such as the USA) come to the fore more in the late-game. The Babylonians will become scientists, the Venetians will hole up in a corner somewhere and attempt to build the greatest city in the world- you are never tracking the game progression of transparent entities, but tracking the rise and fall of some of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. Beyond that is what seems to draw Cam to the game- the ability to try and build a world, be it an apocalyptic wasteland or some version of utopia. The opportunity to become master of the fate of a world, to try and build something good, to show that it's possible as much as anything else, is a powerful draw. Not only that, but as the argument surrounding Cam and Crusader Kings shows, it is an experience that simply cannot be replicated by an experience such as CK2, which (whichever way you swing it) pitches you into a world that is bloodthirsty, brutal, driven by hatred and greed, and is full of prejudice at every turn.

Not that that is an entirely bad thing- this period of history may be an ugly one, that few of us would like to live in given the choice, but that doesn't mean it can't tell a good story. History is a vibrant tapestry, and in spite of the long list of atrocities it has gathered there are few things more unfailingly human- and, of course, history offers us a learning experience like no other. In that regard, I feel it explains a lot of the endless allure of Crusader Kings II to think of it as less of a strategy game and more of a historical simulator. Whilst prestige, faith and money are ostensibly the three in-game resources, in practice they are less relevant than the 'board state' of the world you find yourself in. What matters in CK2 is less how much land you control, and more by how powerful your neighbours are, and how much they like you; which local lord is a heretic, who doesn't get along with who, and which of your sons or vassals is getting ambitions beyond his station. These are not mechanical constructs, there is not a game of balancing resources to be played, and the only 'strategy' present in CK2 is that required of an actual lord in the dawn of the Middle Ages- that of managing people and power. All the challenge and 'gaminess' of Crusader Kings is not in the mechanical features (your character stats or military might, for example), but in your response to them. A small nation can rise to power either by some strategic marriages, by a well-placed assassin here or there, or simply by marching in sword in hand- or some combination of the three, according to preference.

What this means, among other things, is that as a strictly strategic gameplay experience, Crusader Kings II is infinitely worse than Civilisation. For those who've played the game, imagine for a moment what a multiplayer CK2 map would look like- an utter mess. The game balance would be appalling, the combat's dull, mechanical nature would become even more pronounced, and the AI would simply not be able to stand up against any kind of coordinated assault. The issue is that Crusader Kings, as I have said before, makes the player play a different game from the AI. The player views everything mechanically- they seek to conquer, to win, to spread across the map, and view everything in simple mechanical terms. The characters they play have traits and personalities, but this is crushed under the weight of player intent- a Content will usually be played as Ambitious by a player, whilst a naturally conservative, finance-orientated character can be transformed into a warlord by a player in a good situation to do so. Not only that, but by considering the future of an entire dynasty rather than his own mortal existence, a player is able to focus on plans far grander and more over-reaching than their contemporary counterpart could, resulting in the vast empires usually seen during the endgame of a skilled CK2 player.

But simply not being a good strategy game is not what makes CK2 more historical than strategic- what makes that happen is how beautifully Crusader Kings models the ebb and flow of history, and the weird things that can create the rise and fall of empires. Every CK2 game I play (particularly how not-very-good at the game I am) produces a world that could entirely realistically have happened, and I am essentially living my own version of a period of history I find rather interesting (it is probably at this point that I should mention I do 12th century historical re-enactment). Sometimes it's the big changes one sees as a result of the game mechanics- when Harold wins the Battle of Hastings, when the Second Crusades results in a Scottish Kingdom of Jerusalem (don't ask). More frequently, it's tiny changes that end up cascading into huge consequences, in the way history so often does- the great conqueror does a Henry V and dies on the cusp of great victory, causing an empire to fall about him, or the unremarkable lord who comes to rule a nation through an obscure marriage and someone else's rebellion. In such a way, Crusader Kings 2 shows us a vision of Europe (and the Middle East/Indian subcontinent) where the balance of power is ever-changing, and where the generalised concept of 'nation' always hides the inner turmoil and politics that will drive or destroy it.

It is this, incidentally, that ultimately drove me away from Civilisation. Whilst I can appreciate the mechanics of the game and laud it's goal of being a celebration of Civilisation, I think that it fails to execute on this front by viewing the world as something so much more stagnant and, frankly, uninteresting and homogeneous than it ever was. Despite the mechanical differences between the different leaders and nations, the majority of civilisations in a Civ game end up looking rather samey- they found and spread early-game, fight mid-game, and move toward victory conditions late-game. They are all covered in mines and farms, all cities contain the same buildings. I know why- it's to make the game balanced and predictable, and to allow them to use the same mechanics to cover the full breadth of the game, but come on. Where is this breadth of civilisation being talked about? Where are the nomads, the tribal hordes, the civil wars? Where are the entire nations subsisting on foods others had never heard of- where, moreover are the nations that remained woefully technologically under-developed until more developed nations came calling? That Civilisation doesn't explore this kind of thing, and moreover plots a very westernised view of 'normal' development (did the Maori ever have what the game calls a 'classical era'? Did China ever have a 'renaissance era'?) is, I feel, to its detriment. I feel there is a better Civ game than the current iteration of Civ somewhere, and I'd love to see it.

Anyway- I've rambled a lot, let's try and get to something approaching a point.

The idea that I think precipitates out of this kind of analysis before anything else is the idea that Crusader Kings and Civilisation are much more different games than they might first appear (as both fit in the space of history-based strategy games). Civilisation's appeal comes from two distinct streams- its sheer functionality as a strategy game, with its bulletproof mechanics, and the setting and promise of building your own civlisation- building a world for you to rule. By contrast, the motivations behind CK2 are very different, and centre on the experience offered by its historical backdrop. The worlds you build here are constrained by the rigid rules and philosophies of this snapshot in human time, but within those restrictions an endless, ever-changing and quite colossally deep saga is playing out across the world.

TL;DR- do you wish to build a world, or to tell a story?
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Re: On Civilisation, Crusader Kings and gaming philosophy

Postby AdmiralMemo » 26 Jun 2015, 23:09

Fascinating read. Having only heard of Crusader Kings previously, it's interesting to get to know how it plays. Now I'm pretty sure that I am like Cameron and don't want to play it. I, like Cameron, wish to build a world. I, in his words, "want to build a civilization I'd like to live in." That doesn't seem to be something I could do in CK2.
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Re: On Civilisation, Crusader Kings and gaming philosophy

Postby My pseudonym is Ix » 27 Jun 2015, 01:09

True enough. A great example of this was when friend of mine (who has since played and loved the game) asked when I was recommending it to her if she could play as a female ruler. You can, but in CK2 it happens pretty rarely- most of the time succession is male-preference (because monarchy, yo'), and there are only a few situations where you can get around that (one of which involves being a Catholic heretic, which result in everyone declaring Holy Wars on you). And even if you are a female ruler, everyone else will dislike you because 'girls aren't meant to rule, get back to your embroidery'. As it turns out, the 12th century was sexist as hell!
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Re: On Civilisation, Crusader Kings and gaming philosophy

Postby MisterDee » 30 Jun 2015, 16:46

For me, the big difference is that Civ5 really feels like a game, whereas EU4 (my Paradox game of choice) feels more like a simulation.

More often than not, in Civ5 I feel like all the AI players are just all the heads of the same hydra - one of them will ruin itself attacking me, just to let another run away with the victory. Whereas in EU4, the various heads of state will ally with you, or ignore you, or go to war with you based on what's best for them.

Also, for all the options in the tech tree, city building minigame and religious beliefs, there's actually very few meaningful choices to be made in Civ5. You can safely ignore most of the units, there's generally an optimal build order for your cities and research, and most of the belief list is either not applicable to a given game or an outright trap option (Hello, Messenger of the Gods.) So while it may look like Civ5 offer more opportunities to lead your country, generally speaking I find EU4 offer more choices both on the micro and macro scale.

Civ5 is still fun, but it just doesn't scratch my leadership itch as well.
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Re: On Civilisation, Crusader Kings and gaming philosophy

Postby SixFootTurkey » 11 Jul 2015, 04:39

One major issue I have with the AI of Civ5 is that there's a weird dichotomy between the mechanical element that is obviously there for balance, and the facade of a 'diplomatic relationship'. I say a facade, because it is indeed a fake relationship; they will refuse to trade fairly evenly with you if you are ahead, even if they like you. This makes sense when you look at it with balance in mind, as it's to limit snowballing, and help allow the AI to stay relevant to the game. From a diplomatic standpoint though, it seems odd how you need to give so much to an allegedly declared friend nation just to get the smallest favor. I have had games where I ask a nation that has gone through a declaration of friendship, I had never wronged (spied on, etc), and had given them gifts when they asked earlier in the game. It's odd to find out this alleged friend won't give me their spare copy of a luxury resource unless I give them one or more luxury resources that I only have a single source of in addition to some gold and a variety of strategic resources...

This artificiality has been off-putting enough at times for me to have to take a break from the game for a while.

On a related note, I find a lot of Cam's arguments about Civ:BE to be rather silly in nature. I'm not saying the game is flawless (I don't even know how 'good' I would rate it), but his main arguments seem to draw from it not being the exact same game as Civ5 or his preferred strategies from Civ5 not working.

I think your mention of his favorite culture - one with science buffs - is relevant here. However, not only in BE is he forced to play a faction without as many science bonuses, a pure focus on science is less viable due to the way technology is integrated into the game (the tech 'web', which is more of a 'tree' than the 'tech ladder' in Civ5).
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Re: On Civilisation, Crusader Kings and gaming philosophy

Postby My pseudonym is Ix » 13 Jul 2015, 09:48

I disagree on the latter point, SixFootTurkey. Cam's main argument against Beyond Earth was that it was thematically shallow, or at least uninteresting, to me, and I find this relates back to the already mentioned concept of world-building. Cam's over-riding motivation when playing Civ V, the thing that keeps him coming back rather than what sustains the gameplay in the moment, is to build a world that he would like to live in. And I don't think this side of Civilisation is very well-represented in Beyond Earth. The motivation of the various factions and leaders, or indeed the general way the game presents itself is not about attempting to build something good and more about greed and pride.

Let's review for a moment the victory conditions in Civ: BE

1) Domination: Conquer everyone (because duh, it's a grand strategy game).
2) Emancipation (Supremacy): Build a portal, go back to Earth and 'liberate' it by sending as many troops as you can muster
3) Transcendence (Harmony): Reject Earth and attempt to 'become one' with the planet
4) Promised Land (Purity): 'Rescue' the poor impoverished Earthlings from their hell-hole planet and bring them to yours
5) Contact: Find and make contact with a 'superior alien race'

The common theme that these shares is the idea of ideological opposition- a 'I am right and you are wrong' mentality. By following each path, you consciously reject the others, and make an enemy of all who follow them. There is no sense of being able to live in peace with one another and working towards any kind of greater good- there is a kind of enforced philosophical selfishness, turning all these potentially great leaders into squabbling children with massive laser rifles.

Now, this is all conjecture- I'm not Cam and I can't know his exact thoughts on the matter, and in any case I've not played the game myself, only watched Cam's streams of it. So I can't know that that kind of thought process is what he's going through. But that's just one angle I can see towards the game being philosophically uninteresting. What do you think?
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Re: On Civilisation, Crusader Kings and gaming philosophy

Postby SixFootTurkey » 13 Jul 2015, 12:28

That is indeed valid criticism, and something I did notice myself as well.

I may have written that down poorly (in part because I'm fairly certain I was either distracted or tired, if not both). More accurately that was what appeared to me, to be what Cam would get frustrated at and what I heard him talk about the most freely - that is, what he would tilt over. ^^ (Admittedly I didn't watch too many of his BE streams if he had many, and I don't really enjoy Civ5 as a streamed game.)

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